Why Email Still Matters

There are so many sexy topics in computing and information technology these days. In light of all this potential excitement, I'm going to write about email. Which isn't sexy or exciting.

This isn't we should be clear, to say that email doesn't matter, because it seems that email still matters a great deal. Rather that email is still a relevant and useful paradigm. What's more, the email system (i.e. SMTP and associated tools) remains in many ways superior to all of the technologies and platforms that have attempted to replace email.

The Good

Email works. The servers (e.g. Postfix, Exim, Sendmai, but most Postfix) are stable, known, and very functional. While there are flaws in a lot of email clients, there are a lot of tools that exist for processing and dealing with email, and that makes it possible for everyone to interact with their email on their own terms, in a variety of contexts that make sense the them. And email is such that we can all use it and interact with each other without requiring that we all participate in some restrictive platform or interface.

In short, email is open, decentralized, standard, lightweight, push-based, and multi-modal.

Compare this to the systems that threaten to replace email: Facebook and social networking utilities, twitter, text messaging, real-time chat (i.e. IRC, IM, and Jabber). The advantages of email on these crucial, I think, dimensions are pretty clear.

The Bad

The problem, of course, with email is that it's terribly difficult to manage to keep current with one's email. Part of this problem is spam, part of the problem is "bacon," or legitimate (usu sally automated) email that doesn't require attention or is difficult to process, and it's undeniable that a big part of of it is that most end user email clients are inefficient to use. And there's the user error factor: most people aren't very good at using email effectively.

It Gets Better

No really it does. But I don't think we can wait for a new technology to swoop in and replace email. That's not going to happen. While I'm not going to write a book on the subject, I think there are some simple things that most people can do to make email better:

1. Do use search tools to make the organization of email matter less. Why file things carefully, when you can quickly search all of your email to find exactly what you need.

2. Filter your email, within an inch of it's life. Drop everything you can bare to. Put email lists into their own mail boxes. Dump "work" or "client" email into its own folders. Successful filtering means that almost nothing gets to your "inbox."

3. Use your inbox as a hotlist of things that need attention. Move email that needs responses to your inbox, and move anything that got through your filters to where it ought to be.

4. Use multiple email addresses that all redirect to a single email box. You only want to ever have to check one email system, but you probably want multiple people in multiple contexts to be able to reach you via email. This makes email filtering easier, and means that you just spend time working rather than time switching between email systems and wondering where messages are.

5. When writing emails, be brief and do your damnedest to give the people you're writing with something concrete to respond to. Emails that expect responses but are hard to respond to are among the worst there are, because you have to say something there's nothing worth saying.

6. Avoid top posting (i.e. responding to an email with the quoted material from previous exchanges below your respone.) When appropriate interleave your responses in their message to increase clarity and context without needing to be overly verbose.

7. Email isn't real time. If you need real time communication use some other medium. Don't feel like you need to respond to everything immediately. Managing expectations around email is a key to success.

That addresses most of the human problem. The technological problem will be solved by addressing spam, by building simpler tools that are easier to use effectively and support the best kind of email behaviors.

Why Email will Improve

1. Email is great in the mobile context. It's not dependent upon having a net connection which is good when you depend on wireless.

2. Email is a given. Having email is part of being a digital citizen and we mostly assume that everyone has an email. The largest burden with most new technologies is often sufficient market share to make a "critical mass" rather than some sort of threshold of innovation.

3. Email is both push-based (and delivery times are pretty fast) and asynchronous. Though this doesn't sound sexy, there aren't very many other contemporary technologies that share these properties.

Onward an Upward!

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